Fantasy Review: “The Griffin” by M.J. McGriff

I discovered this story in a roundabout kind of way through Instagram. [Check out the tag #MeetWriterMoms to discover some really interesting new writers!] I just had to share it. First, because it represents what great fantasy can and should be–engrossing, otherworldly, and original--and second, because it’s FREE to read! Click the link to have a copy emailed to you as a PDF of for your preferred e-reader format.

You may have noticed my emphasis on the word “original” above. I don’t know what it is, but Fantasy, for all of its infinite possibilities is one of the most consistently cliched genres out there. I love a good fantasy story. But having to wade through all the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones rip offs to get to the good stuff is exhausting. Even if the story itself is engaging, I get tired of the run-of-the-mill fantasy worlds, unpronounceable Gaelic-sounding names, and robe-clad priests. I rarely stick with a series for more than two or three books anymore.

Don’t get me started on the characters. Why on earth, when writing in a world only limited by your own imagination, are the heroes and heroines the same cookie-cutter Ken and Barbie (or should I say Guinevere and Lancelot?) characters we are inundated with in the not-so-real media of the “real world?” Non-white characters are reserved to act as the exotic royalty and mysterious villains, if they are included at all. Not to mention queer, trans, disabled, or otherwise marginalized characters, or even well-rounded men and women, period. Fantasy loves its Mary/Gary Sues. I’m always on the hunt for writers and writing that is as diverse as our real-real world.

But I digress.

M.J. McGriff’s short story “The Griffin” is refreshing and wonderful and none of the things I just complained about. I flew through this story, driven to know what happens to young Neema next. After the unexpected death of her favourite uncle, Neema sets out to discover the secret behind a cryptic message he has left for her. Neema herself is a likable, believable character. The world is lush. The mystery is intriguing. Above all, McGriff’s treatment of the titular fantasy creature is unexpected and exciting!

I can’t wait to read more from Magia and the Griffin Vales!

M.J. McGriff also writes Sci-Fi, which I’m going to check out next. Her New Earth Series is available on the ‘Zon, click HERE to check it out. If you read and review it before I do, please send me the link, and I’ll send YOU a signed copy of my first book The Timekeepers’ War.

Click here to get your free copy!http://www.mmcgriff.com/

SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case.

PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.

Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.

Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.

I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.

For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.

The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.

After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)

It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.

These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.

The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.

But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?

Well…

I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,

 “Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”

Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.

After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.

The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.

Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”

And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.

Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”

Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.

For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.

What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.

Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.

I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle is one of the books that came up when I was reading up on Black Speculative Fiction Month last October. This wonderful novella is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the most notoriously racist of Lovecraft’s oft-bigoted tales of cosmic horror.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t actually read “The Horror at Red Hook.” Critics seem to almost unanimously agree that, while much of Lovecraft’s fiction has strengths that elevate it above the author’s ugly prejudices, “The Horror at Red Hook” is essentially without any redeemable qualities. And, I also have to admit, while I have studied Lovecraft, and actually do enjoy a handful of his tales, for the most part I find his writing painfully archaic and obtuse. Even while his Cthulhu Mythos has inspired some of my own fiction writing, I have had to force myself through the majority of his work. So, without any redeeming qualities, I doubt I’d be able to finish “The Horror at Red Hook” if I did try to read it.

Now, it’s hard to get around the fact that Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, even while modern critics are finally acknowledging and deconstructing his unapologetic asshatery. How much are we willing to overlook in the name of art? This is something that a lot of horror and science fiction writers are considering.

“Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes Stephen King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

And it’s true. It seem inescapable. Even for those who have never read Lovecraft, it is impossible to read modern horror that has not been in some way influenced by his writing.

Reading “The Ballad of Black Tom” has really made me think about how much harder it must be for marginalized horror/SF writers to reconcile this influence in a positive way. LaValle’s dedication in his novella is poignant. “For H.P. Lovecraft,” it reads, “with all my conflicted feelings.” But “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a perfect example of how such a reconciliation might be accomplished.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” revisits the world of Lovecraft’s Red Hook neighbourhood from the perspective of a black man, Charles Thomas Tester, living in Harlem in the 1920s. My understanding of the Lovecraft original is that it’s basically a screed against brown people, immigrants, people who don’t speak English, and especially brown immigrants who don’t speak English.

LaValle actually does an excellent job of retaining the bigotry of some of these characters, while looking at them critically through the eyes of Tommy Tester. The horrors that Tester experiences are as much a product of racism in 1920s New York as they are the more cosmic horrors that his counterpart and erstwhile employer, Robert Suydem, is courting.

Tommy Tester’s experiences as he moves from Harlem, to Suydem’s upscale white neighbourhood, to the immigrant centre of Red Hook demonstrate the horror of being an outsider, of being othered by society. It is only when Tester has been completely isolated, after his own personal horror and loss has released him from his sense of humanity, that he becomes Black Tom–embracing inhumanity as a path to freedom. Even still, the true monsters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” are all-too human.

Ruthanna Emrys sums it up nicely in a review for Tor. “The task of today’s cosmic horror—if it seeks to touch on readers’ real fears, and not simply reflect the squids of particular authors—is to connect the vast inhumanity of an uncaring universe with the vast inhumanity of entirely banal humans,” she writes. “This, LaValle accomplishes admirably. Cthulhu is a metaphor for us; we become, if we aren’t careful, a metaphor for Cthulhu.”

 

SF Review: Absolute Valentine by Tom Haswell

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Absolute Valentine: Memory Green” is Season One of the first fiction mini-series released by the Monolith, set in Crushpop Production‘s Goremageddon universe. The series was inspired by an 80s synth band by the same name, who teamed up with the Monolith to create the series (check them out on Facebook here!) This is my second venture into the world of Goremageddon; I explored “Chinatown” with Chris Reynolds last week. I’m loving the varied landscapes and characters available in this universe, and I can totally see why the game appeals to so many! Where “Chinatown” was like a gritty hard-boiled detective story set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles safe zone, “Absolute Valentine” is a sci-fi tech spin on vigilante justice in a post-apocalyptic New York.

Tom Haswell’s “Absolute Valentine” is anything but sweet. “Memory Green” begins with Valentine after he wakes up in a back alley, blinded, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Bits and pieces of his old life slowly start to filter back to him as we progress through the episodes, and we learn with him as he meets friends and enemies and discovers who he really is.

The beauty of “Memory Green” is in how seamlessly it blends genres and SF tropes into something truly unique. Military super-soldiers, Re-Newed York City crime-family terf wars, cyborg mercenaries, and twisted medics combine into the perfect storm of ultra-violence and non-stop action. Warning: blood and guts abound!

“Absolute Valentine” is definitely more action heavy than “Chinatown,” though I think there will be some crossover in the audiences. “Chinatown” isn’t lacking in action by any means, but it’s plot is more character driven. Valentine is pushed more by his circumstances. “Memory Green’s” action is plot driven and relentlessly paced as Val is forced to kill or be killed. He must defend himself against an onslaught of attackers and try to stay one step ahead of the one who wants him dead.

While there may not be a lot of time for Valentine’s self-reflection in “Memory Green” I found the ending of season one to be a very satisfying revelation of his true character, and I think that revelation is what is really going to propel the mini-series in future seasons. Revenge is sweet, in the end, but even better is the promise of Valentine’s rebirth and what that’s going to mean for Re-Newed York City.

I, for one, am looking forward to it. If you haven’t gotten on board with serialized fiction yet, either one of the Monolith’s mini-series would be a great place to start. You can read them as they’re released (monthly) or jump in and binge-read them once a season is complete. Either way, it’s a pretty addicting medium to read it, and I’m loving it!

Book Review: Refuse by Jennifer Roush

Refuse by Jennifer Roush

I can honestly say that Jennifer Roush’s sci-fi novel Refuse is unlike anything I have ever read. I’m guessing this is going to be new to you, too. Now, don’t go running away screaming. This is not some experimental post-narrative fart sniffing BS. When I say new I mean…

 

I have never been inside a characters head quite like this before. And I like it.

 

Refuse is a serious book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And you can hear Roush’s voice oozing out of every word of every sentence. This book has style. Narrative style. A very distinct narrative style that I can only compare to the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (both of whom Roush is nothing like, I just compare for the intensity of authorial voice).

 

It’s not going to be for everyone, I’ll say that right now.

 

Refuse is the story of Antoinette Foucault, a human resident on the asteroid Psyche (which is shared with two other alien species, the mysterious Grays and the powerful Amarians). Psyche is home to a Colony of the solar systems unwanted humans: emotional deviants who refuse to conform to Amarian rules. Antoinette is not a patient of the Colony, but she should be.

 

The band of misfits that propel this story are so bizarre it’s almost a thing of beauty. The inner workings of Antoinette’s mind as she works her way through the mysterious society of Psyche certainly are beautiful. Raw and course and sometimes ugly; but beautiful.

 

What I like best about Refuse beyond the sheer strangeness of the plot and characters, is Antoinette’s voice. The gritty, gross, sometimes absurd musings of a woman who is destined to destroy her home. She’s a deviant, surely. But in this world, so are we all. Sometimes Anty is so funny that we forget there is nothing funny about her situation, and that’s the beauty of this book.

 

I’m a big fan of SF that gets outside the box. Science fiction should be a world without boxes, but there’s a tradition at play that many writers struggle to break free from. Roush succeeds, and then some. She manages to play with ideas around species, individuality, gender, race, and sexuality so fluidly that you don’t realize much of what Antoinette is going through is a parallel to our own world. If you’re like me, you’ll be laughing too hard to realize that Refuse is a serious book.

 

And that’s why I love it.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Jennifer Roush is my friend and sometimes editor. My review is in no way coloured by this relationship. She’d probably beat me if I praised her for something that didn’t deserve praise. The fact is, I know a lot of very clever people, and I will be showcasing them (and others) here as often as I can. And I promise I will only review things I genuinely love, or genuinely hate, here. Because taste matters.

That said, if you have something you would like me to read and review (of yours or someone else’s) please let me know.

Book Review: Albert Perkins and the Lost City (The Tau Bootes Chronicles, book 1) by Lazarus Gray

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I haven’t done a book review in a really long time. I honestly hardly have time to read these day. But I just finished reading Albert Perkins and the Lost City, the debut novel by indie author Lazarus Gray. I’m so glad I made time for this book!

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by an indie read in a long time, and I’m thrilled to recommend it to you today. Albert Perkins is a quick, action packed read that will take you from the deepest desert of the Australian outback and to the furthest reaches of outer space. The combination may sound strange, but Gray has drawn it up with an expert hand. Albert Perkins is an aborigine meteorologist who, with his companions, manages to survive a deadly earthquake only to find that the adventure is just beginning. They embark on a mission to save mankind from themselves (not to mention the notorious Grays, no relation to the author).

 

Gray’s writing is reminiscent of a modern Jules Verne. His attention to detail is impeccable, and the science that back up this fascinating story is both well-researched and well-presented. But what I think I loved most about this book is how kind-hearted it is. It’s uncommon to find such a cast of lovable, relatable characters—people who genuine just want to do what is best and to make the world a better place. There is conflict, of course, and lots of action. Yet Gray manages to maintain a pureness of spirit that is so refreshing, particularly in contemporary science fiction writing.

 

Albert Perkins and the Lost City would be an excellent entry point to those who are new to the genre. The writing is very accessible, the science is both believable and easy to understand, and it hits on many key themes within SF writing—alien life, conspiracy theories, natural disasters, the failings of modern civilization—and it brings with it an optimism and positivity that is much rarer. I also loved the unique focus on aborigine culture and spirituality. Whether you are a sci-fi buff or beginner, you will be well-rewarded by making time for this book.

 

Congratulations on a great debut, Lazarus Gray. All in all, it was a fun, refreshing read. I look forward to seeing more of you in the future!

Calling all Reviewers!

Looking for a summer read?
Looking for a summer read?

I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!